Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Speaking publicly about mental illness

Tonight was my first speaking event for Stop Stigma Sacramento, I spoke in front of about 40 people.  Most of them were board members of the Sacramento Children's Home, and also many of their spouses.  Below is my speech.

Hello.  My name is Danny Price.  I am a 4th grade teacher, a father of two teenage boys, a husband, a son, a youth worker for my church and a friend to many.  I also live with mental illness.  Today I will be talking about something I kept secret for many years,.  Something I was once ashamed of.  I have learned, though, over the last several years that living with a mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of. I live with major depression and anxiety.  It is an illness, a medical issue, just like diabetes or cancer.

I have lived with major depression and anxiety since my teenage years.  As I think back I first noticed something seemed wrong when I was a young teenager. I felt different than everybody else.  I had friends and lived an outwardly normal existence, but on the inside I was filled with fear, shame, and pain.  My high school years were very difficult emotionally, but because I was scared and ashamed I didn't tell anyone about it.  There was not much awareness about mental health 30 years ago, and I didn't understand what was happening.  My family also didn't understand or recognize the symptoms, therefore I did not receive any help or support with my problems.  This continued into college.

Around the age of 20 I first took action to do something about this pain I felt.  I don’t remember how it happened to be honest.  I first started  therapy and antidepressants in my early 20s.  I stayed in the same therapy group for 7 years and it changed my life.  The work was very hard and slow.  During this time and after I would go off of my medication once I started to feel better.  This went on for years  I would have long periods of doing well.  But eventually it would always creep back in.  And not only that, but each time the interval between episodes would get shorter, and the intensity of the episode would be stronger.  This continued, and about 4 years ago I hit a breaking point.
One of the misperceptions about depression is that it is a reaction to bad things happening in your life.  While this can be true, it isn't always this way. sometimes things can be going along just fine and depression will hit anyway.   This is where I was in the summer of 2011.  Everything in my life was going well, and I quickly fell into a deep depression.  This made it really hard for me.  What's wrong with me that I feel this way when I have so many good things in my life?  I should just be grateful for all that I have.  It was the end of summer and I was getting ready to go back to work.  I had tapered off of my medication with help from my doctor. The depression hit quickly and harder than ever.  I worked very hard to keep up the appearance of normalcy on the outside, but inside I was falling apart.  Over the next several weeks as I went back to work things got worse.  I had trouble making it through the work day.  I didn't feel like myself anymore.  I felt a constant heaviness, I couldn't smile, I wasn't able to sleep, and I often cried for no apparent reason. I was losing control of my life.   It was incredibly scary.  Depression tells me lies, it tells lies to everyone who suffers.  And when you are in the middle of it, it's easy to believe the lies.  The worst part of this particular occurrence of depression was that I became absolutely convinced that I was a burden to all those around me and that everyone would be better off if I was not alive.  I did not actively seek to end my life, but I did wish I wasn't alive.  The pain was so unbearable that I did not want to live.

I was very scared, and I realized I needed help.  I had never had an episode of depression this bad before.  I took it more seriously than I had in the past.  Instead of just going to my regular doctor, I went to see a psychiatrist and got back on medication.  It was the first time I had been officially diagnosed.  I have recurrent major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.  I also went back to see my therapist.  This was different also.  In my work there I began to recognize how difficult it was for me to pretend that all is well when it isn't.  I didn't want to live this way anymore.
I slowly began the process of coming out in the open with my illness.  I started this process by having conversations with friends and family.  It was very scary, and I wasn't sure how people would respond.  I was afraid people would judge me, think less of me, or discount my experience.  To my surprise many people shared with me ways in which their lives had been affected by mental illness.  Some had struggled themselves, many had friends or family members with depression or other mental illness, and sadly some had lost loved ones to suicide.  I realized that by talking about my struggles I gave permission to others to do the same. Realizing the healing effect talking about my illness had both on me and those around me I decided to do more. 

Since that time I have become outspoken about mental illness and have become an advocate.  Through social media I have met many other advocates from around the world.   I now live openly with my mental illness. I had no idea how freeing that would feel.  It was like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders.  Living openly has taken away much of the power depression holds over me.  Depression thrives on secrecy, it makes you think it is all your fault.  But the good news is it's not.  It's an illness.  A chemical imbalance in your brain.  Like any illness it's hard to manage, but it can be done.  I take medication daily and still go to therapy twice a month.  I have a strong support system in real life and through social media .  Having come to accept my mental illness, and seeing the effect it has had on me has made me want to speak out even more.  And that is why I'm here talking to you today.

I speak out is because I know firsthand how isolating it can be trying to fight this illness alone.  I speak out because I know that two thirds of the people with mental illness do not seek help.  I speak out to let people know that they are not alone, and to end the stigma surrounding mental illness.  I speak out because over 40,000 people die each year in the United States to suicide, with nearly a million making attempts.  And finally, I speak out because I know in doing so it can change and save lives.

We can all do things to help decrease the stigma.  The first is to take action and seek help for ourselves if we are struggling.  Also, we can have conversations with others and challenge stereotypes about mental illness when we hear them.  The last point I will leave you with is that we who struggle with mental illnesses become masters at hiding our pain and struggles.  Therefore, the most important thing to do is to treat each other with compassion because we may not know for sure who is suffering.    Listening to each other is valuable, and I thank you for listening to my story.  

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